States, Civilization, & Reducing Violence

States, Civilization, & Reducing Violence

People today are pretty terrified of living in a totalitarian state. Following the 1900’s, when Nazis rounded up and killed millions of Jews and when dictators in South America like Pinochet in Chile made dissenters “disappear”, people have become concerned about the power of the state and the possibility that the state would use violence against the population in order to maintain power and control. Totalitarian states do exist and are still scary (China’s surveillance is particularly alarming, Russian misinformation is a huge problem, and North Korea’s willingness to live in poverty if awful), but it is possible that people have gone too far in terms of their fears of the state in much of the world.
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker argues that states have made people and societies much safer, and that stronger states have done a better job of reducing violence than weaker states. He writes, “Hobbes noted that humans in particular have three reasons for quarrel: gain, safety, and credible deterrence. People in nonstate societies fight about all three.” When you live in a powerful state, you can be relatively sure that you cannot use violence for personal gain. States can provide a feeling of safety by patrolling crime in a fair and competent manner. Through deterrence, states can reduce violence. Without a functioning state with the resources to provide credible deterrence, safety, and prevent people from using violence for gain, then individuals can take these things into their own hands. They are incentivized to perpetuate violence against others for their own gain, safety, and deterrence of future violence.
Totalitarian states may be awful, but well functioning and strong states (short of totalitarian regimes) reduce violence and allow people to interact in meaningful ways. We shouldn’t hate the state and constantly be fearful of the state simply because the possibility of totalitarianism is always there. It is easy to imagine a state that has been continually weakened and reduced by its population to become effectively powerless, incapable of stopping violence for personal gain, incapable of providing safety, and incapable of providing credible deterrence against violence. Such a state could be overwhelmed and taken over by a despot who wishes to impose totalitarian governance. Governments need to be strong and well functioning in order to reduce crime and violence. “The reduction of homicide by government control,” writes Pinker, “is so obvious to anthropologists that they seldom document it with numbers.” Somehow we forget this when we are mad at our government for increasing taxes to try to provide important services, improve public conditions, or to try to promote a more representative bureaucracy.
I don’t want to minimize the danger and threat that totalitarian governments pose to the world. I do however want to highlight the absurdity of claiming that any government action within a democracy is a threat that could lead to a dystopian and totalitarian regime of violence. If violence is our main concern, we might want to consider the dangers of an inept government more than the dangers of a strong government.
A Radical Shift in Ideas of Deservingness

A Radical Shift in Ideas of Deservingness

I think a lot about deservingness. I think most of us think about deservingness all the time, but I’m not sure many of us really think about the concept and idea of deservingness itself. As a student of political science, however, deservingness was something that I was taught as being central to how we understand our relationships between each other, and how we make political decisions with scarce resources. Deservingness plays a central role in how we decide who gets what and when.
Deservingness is a tricky and complex idea that includes concepts of seniority, judgments of effort, evaluations of value, and considerations of disability. In the end, however, we generally rely on vague intuitions and general notions of worthiness to determine who is and is not deserving. In the United States we have decided that senior citizens who have worked for 40 years and paid taxes are deserving of social security checks. We have decided that men and women who have served in the armed forces are deserving of government sponsored insurance and healthcare. And we have decided that people addicted to opioids don’t deserve much of anything (though this sentiment is slowly changing as the demographic of opioid addicts slowly changes to include senior citizens, war veterans, and other deserving people).
I highlight ideas of deservingness to serve as a background context for a quote in Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens. Harari writes, “A significant proportion of humanity’s cultural achievements owe their existence to the exploitation of conquered populations.” We are in a movement today where the contributions of exploited peoples are gaining more recognition. We are seeing people who have historically been marginalized and exploited celebrated for their perseverance, grit, and achievements despite their oppression. Rather than viewing exploited people as inferior and justifying their exploitation on the grounds of higher crime among impoverished neighborhoods and low education among such people, the narrative is being flipped. Oppressed people are being seen as more deserving for the dirty jobs they do and the ways in which they have supported the upper classes which have produced incredible cultural achievements. (I will note, in the United States this particularly applies to minority communities. In my sense, white communities of oppressed people are not being recognized to the same extent, likely contributing to the racial anxiety of our times.)
Harari’s quote can be seen in the infrastructure of America. The Capitol Building and some monuments around Washington DC were built by slaves. An oppressed people enabled our founding fathers to pursue philosophy, art, and a political revolution. In this way, America rests on an exploited and oppressed population.
Much of the animosity and hostility we see between different political parties today is a result in the radical shift in ideas of deservingness that we see with relation to oppressed peoples in our country. The backlash against Critical Race Theory, against Black Lives Matter, and against changing cultural values is in many ways a backlash against the way we view deservingness. Younger generations today are seeing exploited people as being more deserving than those who perpetuated their exploitation. The oppressors were the ones who were educated, lived hygienically, pushed scientific and technological breakthroughs, and created artistic and culturally valuable masterpieces. Yet they did all this while standing on the shoulders of an exploited population. For generations, the oppressors were the ones seen as deserving, but increasingly, the oppressed are now seen as deserving, while the oppressors are not. In this radical shift, groups that have historically been higher in terms of socials status and wealth are threatened, and I believe that is a substantial contributor to the anger and animosity we see in our political system today.
Deservingness is not static. It shifts and changes based on the narratives our cultures believe. We always fight over ideas of deservingness because they can be the difference between government financial support and bankruptcy or the difference between prison and rehabilitation programs. The narratives of deservingness are important and our current radical shift in how we understand deservingness is a big part of the political turbulence we are all experiencing.